Etta James was known for her versatility, backed by the unmatched strength of her voice. However, there is a sordid backstory to how James honed her skills.
Etta James ruled the 1950s through the 1990s’ music scene, alongside music greats. Coming up from an impoverished background, the singer rose above all the odds.
James’ talent and influence are entrenched in various music genres, which has been impressive to listeners. However, what made her stand out was her powerful voice, characteristic of a coarse undertone and some grunts. Here’s a look through Etta James’ life that influenced her vocal range.
Who Was Etta James?
Etta James was an award-winning musical artist, a go-getter, and a star who rose above personal life issues. But before all of these, James was Jamesetta Hawkins, a California-born girl with a will to survive.
James was born to Dorothy Hawkins in 1938. Dorothy had been a minor and there was not much she could do for her child. James was taken in by her mom’s friends, Lula and Jesse Rogers, who were also her foster parents.
James had an early introduction to music and started showing her vocal range at age 5. She joined the church choir and would sing her heart out to the joy of the congregation. However, there was one person not so impressed by the amazing talent of the child.
That was James’ choirmaster, and he incessantly pushed her to do more. At a point, the voice coach would ram his fist into her chest to make her sing from the guts. James soon understood what was required of her, and many wondered how a little child could own such a strong voice.
Insides James’s Music Career
By 12, Etta James and her family moved to San Francisco, where she met Johnny Otis. This was way into the 1950s. It all started with casual singing sessions before James decided to release the song “Roll With Me Henry.”
The risque tune was renamed “The Wallflower” to be more acceptable to the American audience. It was also in this period that Otis changed James’ name. Otis also gave her a nickname, the Miss Peaches, which was adopted by a girl group she formed.
James’ stint in the girl group was short-lived as she decided to go solo. Still a teenager, she was signed to Chess Records, a big-shot music group in Chicago. James’ career took off from there with songs like “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
James also did duets with her then-boyfriend, Henry Fuqua, and they created something beautiful and evergreen with sounds like “At Last,” “Trust in Me,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry.”
Etta James’ Troubled Years
By the 1960s, James’ signature sounds that melded gospel, blues, jazz, and rock were well on their way to becoming historical. All the while, she remained with Chess Records.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, James sought extra comfort in the cantankerous clutches of hard drugs. She sunk into the thin line between reality and delusion, and many were worried for her.
However, James’ struggles with drugs never affected her music. She collaborated with the Shoals house music band and released her 1967 album, “Tell Mama.” The body of work did excellently well, gaining critical acclaim.
The “A Sunday kind of Love” crooner released her eponymous album, “Etta James,” in 1973 and bagged a Grammy nomination. In 1977, James moved to Warner Brothers Records and released more albums, all bagging critical acclaim.
Through this triumphant period in her career, James; personal life was in shambles because of her heroin addiction. She developed unscrupulous behavior. Ultimately, a judge gave her an ultimatum to go to jail or sign up for rehab, and she agreed with the latter.
Etta James’ Life Post-Addiction
In the 1990s, James seemed to have moved past her addiction and was ready for more wins. In accordance, she released an album, “Mystery Lady” in 1994, and it earned her a grammy award.
James was the recipient of six Grammy awards, further bagging a star on the Hollywood walk for me and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
With a career span close to six decades, James’ music stood classic enough to influence the likes of Christina Aguilera, Adele, and Beyoncé, who played her in “Cadillac Records.”
In the 2000s, James struggled with being overweight and, at 400lb, had to undergo a gastric bypass. In 2010, the music star was diagnosed with Leukemia after a blood infection.
She also suffered dementia and hepatitis C until she died in 2012. Etta James died in her Riverside home in California and is survived by her sons, Donto and Sametto James.